Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Managing Your Emotions in Marriage - Anger
Amy called our office on a Tuesday morning to make an appointment. Married 7 ½ years, she and Ted have always had trouble communicating. After a long holiday weekend in which their arguments escalated into “a lot of yelling and name calling,” they decided to seek counseling before things got out of hand.
Amy and Ted are smart to seek help before their angry outbursts escalate into physical violence.
- Reports from the National Institute of Justice and the CDC show that
1.5 million women and 1 million men report being physically abused
by an intimate partner.
- 80% percent of murders are committed by family members or intimate
- Researchers guesstimate almost 100% of couples have an occasional physical expression of anger including door slamming, fist pounding, or pushing/shoving.
In addition to violent outcomes of angry feelings, anger can shorten your lifespan. Research on Type A personalities at Duke University found that it is not the hard driving perfectionist personality that is related to heart disease but a subtype – the hostile Type A - whose lives are shortened by the effects of chronic anger.
Anger can also be death to the relationship. It can kill the good feelings and shut partners down. While divorce researchers have found couples give issues such as money and affairs as the most immediate events prior to a divorce decision, marriage counselors know that it is the long term build up of angry feelings that often leads to the decision to leave. If only couples understood where anger comes from and what to do about it.
Handling Anger Better
Where does anger come from?
If you are like most of the folks that attend our marriage work-shops, you answered, “from situations.” If that were true, two people in the same situation would react exactly alike. What creates emotions is how our brains process the actions of our spouses.
Here is a very simple description of how feelings are created. A stimulus such as a sight, sound, smell, touch, or even a memory occurs. Your brain filters the stimulus through your beliefs, expectations, and memories. Then your brain and the rest of your nervous system signal your body creating physical experiences of emotions called feelings. For example, relaxation is a bodily experience of a decrease in heart rate and muscle tension. Anger is often experienced as negative excitement with symptoms of racing heart, tense muscles, tight stomach,and loss of ability to make good judgments.
Like all emotions, anger had an adaptive function for our cave ancestors, signaling them when their rights to life, property, or family were threatened. In modern times our cave brains react exactly the same when we perceive that our rights have been transgressed, preparing our bodies to flee or fight the transgressor.
The next time you get angry at your spouse ask yourself: What is this anger about? What rights do I perceive as being threatened?
Most likely it will be about the perception that you did not receive expected marital benefits from your partner such as love, respect, support, etc. Unless you stop and examine your thoughts about a possible transgression, your anger response will be off and running even if your partner did not intend to hurt you. It is much more difficult to regain control of your body once the process has begun than it is to stop it before it starts.
Anger is often a secondary emotion preceded by frustration of your goals or by hurt because your partner doesn’t seem to care. Once you identify the underlying issue that is bothering you, you can articulate your needs to your partner and negotiate how to meet those needs.
If you struggle with anger or rage, here are some suggestions:
- Your partner’s bad behavior does not justify bad behavior on your
part. Guard against yelling, shoving, insulting, and name calling
no matter what your spouse is doing.
- Take a look at your expectations. Often anger originates with a
sense of entitlement such as “I deserve to get what I want,” or
“My partner shouldn’t do those aggravating things.” You can greatly
reduce your anger before it even starts by reminding yourself:
“My partner usually has my best interest at heart but I don’t have
a right to get all of my needs met 100% of the time.”
- Conflicts are an inevitable part of living with another person. No matter how much you have in common or love each other, you will have different preferences, values, and ways of doing things. Therefore some frustration is the result of sharing your life with someone.
Once you decide to discuss the misunderstandings, frustrations, or hurts with your partner, bring them up when you are both free from distraction and can talk for awhile.
- Listen and summarize each person’s point of view until you can agree on what the conflict is about and how you are both viewing the situation.
- Brainstorm some solutions without critiquing the ideas.
- Critique and eliminate some of the solutions.
- Create an action plan that will solve the problem.
- Execute the action plan.
- Evaluate your success. Repeat the steps as needed.
When couples improve their conflict management skills and learn to handle emotions in healthy ways, escalation can be prevented.
Taking a Time Out
Time out can be an effective technique to regain control so that you can use the conflict steps described above.
- Either partner can call a time out without explanation. That person
should suggest an end time for the time out. The other partner is not
to argue about whether to take the time out. Just do it.
- Both people should do something to calm the hot emotions. Take a walk,
exercise, practice relaxation or yoga. Dr. James Honeycutt (Louisiana
State University) recommends that you not use time out to rehearse the
insults for when you get back together. Instead think calming thoughts
and examine your expectations so you are ready to talk calmly about
them with your partner.
- Do not use time out as an excuse to avoid the problem altogether.
It should be a short term break (less than 24 hours) to regain control.
- Come back together at the arranged time. Either partner can renew
the time out and set a new time or you can discuss the issue using
the steps of conflict management.
Anger is not always a bad thing – especially if it motivates you to do something to make your life better.
Markman & Notarious. We Can Work It Out.
Markman et al. Fighting for Your Marriage.
Copyright 2005 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information: